Stegops spikes?

Updated March 18, 2021
with a new reconstruction of Stegops and a nesting within Seymouriamorpha.

Stegops divaricata (Cope 1885; AMNH 2559; 5.6 cm skull length; Westphalian, Late Carboniferous, 310 mya) is a basal tetrapod that has bounced around the family tree without settling down.

Figure 1. Stegops skull in situ and reconstructed.

Figure 1. Stegops skull in situ and reconstructed.

Moodie 1916 reported 
the skull of Stegops was small, oval and “the quadrate angles project into sharp horns.” One can presume Moodie meant the squamosal had horns, because that’s how he drew them (Fig. 1). The quadrates in this and related taxa are hidden beneath the cheek bones. He considered Stegops a microsaur.

According to Wikipedia:
“Stegops is an extinct genus of euskelian temnospondyl from the Late Carboniferous of the eastern United States. Fossils are known from the Pennsylvanian coal deposits of Linton, Ohio. It was once classified in the eryopoid family Zatrachydidae because it and other zatrachydids have spikes extending from the margins of its skull, but it is now classified as a dissorophoid that independently evolved spikes.”

After Moodie 1916,
this taxon was largely ignored for decades.

Then Milner and Schoch 2005 reported:
“The spiky-headed temnospondyl amphibian Stegops divaricata from the Middle Pennsylvanian coal of Linton, Ohio has remained neglected and enigmatic for several decades. It has been argued to be the ancestor of the Permian Zatrachydidae, also spiky-headed temnospondyls, although there are few resemblances other than the spikes. An examination of previously undescribed material of Stegops, along with a re-evaluation of the original specimens, permits a redescription and partial systematic assignment of it. All specimens have bony spikes on the tabular, quadratojugal and angular, but in apparent dimorphism, only some have squamosal and supratemporal spikes. A phylogenetic analysis of 52 characters in 15 temnospondyl taxa places Stegops within the dissorophoid clade but leaves its position uncertain within that clade. The Zatrachydidae, represented by Acanthostomatops, fall outside the Dissorophoidea, and the zatrachydid affinities of Stegops asserted by previous workers are based on homoplasious similarities in ornamentation. Internal relationships of the Dissorophoidea remain unresolved and Stegops shares conflicting similarities with Amphibamidae in some resolutions and with an Ecolsonia + Dissorophidae + Trematopidae clade in others.”

After phylogenetic analysis
this specimen of Stegops nested with Ariekanerpeton (Fig. 2) within Seymouriamorpha, contra Milner and Schoch.  In addition, in the large reptile tree (LRT, 1390 taxa then, 1816+ taxa now) dissorphids nest with basal lepospondyls.

Cope ED 1885. Second continuation of researches among the Batrachia of the Coal Measures of Ohio. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 22:405–408.
Milner AR and Schoch RR 2005. Stegops. A problematic spiky-headed temnospondyl
SVPCA Platform Presentation, (London)
Milner A and Schoch R 2006. Stegops, a problematic spiky-headed temnospondyl. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 26 (3, Suppl.): 101A.
Moodie RL 1909. Journal of Geology 17(1):79
Moodie RL 1916. The microsaurian family stegpidae. The coal measures amphibia of North America. Carnegie Institution of Washintion 238: 222pp.


Baron 2017: 21 ‘unambiguous’ theropod/ornithischian synapomorphies don’t pan out

Yesterday we looked at Baron et al. 2017, who proposed uniting Ornithischia with Theropoda to the exclusion of Sauropodomorpha + Herrerasaurus and kin (Fig. 1), among several other relationships not recovered by the large reptile tree (LRT, 980 taxa). They did so by excluding dinosaur outgroup taxa recovered by the LRT, like Gracilisuchus and Pseudhesperosuchus, while including inappropriate outgroup taxa, like pterosaurs, Lagerpeton and kin, and poposaurs, like Silesaurus. In paleontology this is known as ‘cherry-picking’ and yesterday’s post showed how cherry-picking outgroup taxa, like the pterosaur Dimorphodon, can lead to having scansoriopterygid basal birds recovered as basal dinosaurs. Baron et al. did this by focusing on, and mis-scoring minute traits, not readily visible from an arm’s length of viewing. See below.

By contrast,
the LRT provides a very long list of candidate outgroup taxa going back to Devonian tetrapods and lets the computer decide the topology of the reptile family tree including the Dinosauria. It thereby minimizes a priori bias and subjective or traditional opinion in taxon selection. The LRT also employs more readily observable traits and few to no minutia. The LRT is fully resolved with high Bootstap scores, in contrast to the Baron et al. trees.

Today we’ll dive deeper into Baron et al. 2017
They start with a false premise by supporting the clade ‘Ornithodira‘, which is a junior synonym for Reptilia, since it includes pterosaurs. In the LRT pterosaurs share a last common ancestor with dinosaurs in the Devonian amniote Tulerpeton, the last (and only) known common ancestor of all reptiles.

Baron et al. report, “A formal hypothesis proposing dinosaur monophyly was proposed in 1974, and consolidated in the 1980s. As a direct result of these and other analyses, Ornithischia and Saurischia came to be regarded as monophyletic sister-taxa: this hypothesis of relationships has been universally accepted ever since.” Not in the LRT, which recovered evidence in 2011 to support a clade Phytodinosauria, uniting Sauropodomorpha with Ornithischia + several basal phytodinosaur genera.

Baron et al. report, “No studies on early dinosaur relationships have included an adequate sample of early ornithischians and the majority of studies have also excluded pivotal taxa from other major dinosaur and dinosauromorph (near dinosaur) lineages.” The LRT did so include more than an adequate sample of all pertinent taxa.

Baron et al. report, “In order to examine the possible effects of these biases on our understanding of dinosaur evolution, we carried out a phylogenetic analysis of basal Dinosauria and Dinosauromorpha and compiled, to our knowledge, the largest and most comprehensive dataset of these taxa to date.” No, the LRT is larger and more comprehensive. It is under the authority of the LRT that mistakes can be revealed in the Baron et al. study.

Baron et al. report,Although this study has drawn upon numerous previous studies, no prior assumptions were made about correlated patterns of character evolution or dinosaur interrelationships.” Not true. Their exclusion of appropriate and inclusion of inappropriate taxa demonstrates their assumptions. By this statement they appear to have fooled themselves as well, based on the taxon list of the the LRT.

Baron et al. report, “We analysed a wide range of dinosaurs and dinosauromorphs, including representatives of all known dinosauromorph clades.” Not true. They did not include dinosaur outgroup taxa recovered by the LRT (Fig. 2).

Figure 1. According to Baron et al. 2017 these taxa are related in this fashion.

Figure 1. According to Baron et al. 2017 these taxa are related in this fashion. The LRT does not recover these relationships.

Here is the ‘meat’ of todays post:
Baron et al. report, “The formation of the clade Ornithoscelida [Ornithischia + Theropoda] is strongly supported by 21 unambiguous synapomorphies including: [comments follow]

  1. an anterior premaxillary foramen located on the inside of the narial fossa [present in basal sauropodomorphs Leyesaurus and Pampadromaeus.]
  2. a sharp longitudinal ridge on the lateral surface of the maxilla [present in basal sauropodomorph Pantydraco.]
  3. a jugal that is excluded from the margin of the antorbital fenestra by the lacrimal–maxilla bone contact (this appears convergently in some ‘massospondylids’) [not excluded in Tawa or Coelophysis.]
  4. an anteroventrally oriented quadrate [seemingly all dinosaurs have this sort of quadrate orientation]
  5. short and deep (length of more than twice the dorsoventral height) par occipital processes [apparently a mistake because the figure 2 caption text lists, “elongate par occipital processes.”]
  6. a post-temporal foramen that is entirely enclosed within the par occipital process [I cannot check this minutia with available data]
  7. a supraoccipital that is taller than it is wide [I cannot check this minutia with available data]
  8. a well-developed ventral recess on the parabasisphenoid [I cannot check this minutia with available data]
  9. a surangular foramen positioned posterolaterally on the surangular [I cannot check this minutia with available data]
  10. an entirely posteriorly oriented retroarticularprocess, which lacks any substantial distal upturn [present in basal sauropodomorph Pantydraco.]
  11. at least one dorsosacral vertebra anterior to the primordial pair [I cannot check this with available data]
  12. neural spines of proximal caudals that occupy less than half the length of the neural arches (which are also present in some sauropodomorphs, but absent in Herrerasauridae, Guaibasaurus, and nearly all sauropodomorphs as or more derived than Plateosaurus [it doesn’t matter about derived taxa, we’re looking only at basal taxa, this is a variable trait not present on Scuttelosaurus, but present on Efraasia]
  13.  scapula blade more than three times the distal width (also found in Guaibasaurus) [also found in Herrerasaurus and Sajjuansaurus]
  14. humeral shaft that has an extensively expanded ventral portion of the proximal end, creating a distinct bowing (convergently acquired in plateosaurids and more derived sauropodomorphs) [sounds like a deltopectoral crest, If so, this is universal among Dinosauria]
  15. absence of a medioventral acetabular flange (which was also lost in plateosaurids and more derived sauropodomorphs) [unable to check this minutia with available data]
  16. a straight femur, without a sigmoidal profile (which was also acquired by more derived sauropodomorphs, but absent in basal forms such as Saturnalia and Pampadromaeus, and is also absent in Herrerasauridae) [also absent in Eoraptor, present in Pantydraco]
  17. a well-developed anterior trochanter that is broad and at least partly separated from the shaft of the femur [absent in Eodromaeus and otherwise difficult to check with available data]
  18. a strongly reduced fibular facet on the astragalus [unable to check this minutia with available data]
  19. a transversely compressed calcaneum with reduced posterior projection and medial process [unable to check this minutia with available data]
  20. a first metatarsal that does not reach the ankle joint, but that is instead attached ventrally to the shaft of metatarsal II [not in Tawa, Scelidosaurus or Haya]
  21. fusion of the distal tarsals to the proximal ends of the metatarsals.[not in Tawa, Scelidosaurus or Haya]

several of these ‘traits’ are minutia. The LRT uses larger traits that one can see and measure from a greater viewing distance or with published figures.

According to Baron et al.
other shared features uniting Ornithischia with Theropoda included: [comments again follow]

  1. a diastema between the premaxillary and maxillary tooth rows of at least one tooth crown’s length [not in Eodromaeus, Emausaurus]
  2. an extended contact between the quadratojugal and the squamosal bones [not in a wide variety of ornithischians]
  3. an anterior tympanic recess (convergently acquired in Plateosaurus) [unable to check this minutia with available data]
  4. a fibular crest on the lateral side of the proximal portion of the tibia (described as present in Eoraptor, although we could not confirm its presence, which is also absent in Tawa [unable to check this minutia with available data]
  5. an oblique articular end of the tibia in which the outer malleolus extends further distally than the inner malleolus (although this appears to be absent in Pisanosaurus [unable to check this minutia with available data]
  6. fusion of the sacral neural spines [unable to check this minutia with available data, often hidden by the pelves]
  7. presence of an antitrochanter on the ilium [unable to check this minutia with available data]
  8. reduction of the distal end of the fibula [not in Buriolestes, Tawa, Scelidosaurus]
  9. fusion of the tibia, fibula and proximal tarsals into a tibiotarsus [not in BuriolestesTawaScelidosaurus]
  10. fusion of the metatarsals [not in BuriolestesTawaScelidosaurus]

Apparently Baron et al. were not
thorough enough in these assessments and again depended for the most part, on minute traits rather than large, readily observable ones, Apparently referees were likewise not thorough enough on their vetting of this manuscript. I imagine because it is difficult to do when all the data is not gathered into a single readily reference resource, like The present vetting took only a few hours.

According to Baron et al. 
“20 additional steps would be needed to recover Saurischia as previously defined.” But that’s a false goal according to the LRT results that do not recover a clade Saurischia. And with such bad scoring (see above) this goal turns out to be a misstep, not a step.

Baron et al. report,
“in our hypothesis a fully carnivorous feeding strategy is not recovered as the plesiomorphic condition for Dinosauria and we are forced to interpret some of the anatomical similarities between herrerasaurids and theropods as convergences.” In the LRT, herrerasaurids are basal to all remaining dinosaurs, yet have certain autapomorphies that indicate an older, more plesiomorphic last common ancestor of all dinosaurs is awaiting discovery.

Baron et al. report, 
“Dinosauria is recovered in a polytomy with Silesauridae and the enigmatic Late Triassic British taxon Saltopus elginensis.” In the LRT, both of those outgroups are surrounded by other taxa that separate them from Dinosauria.

Figure 1. The origin of dinosaurs to scale. Gray arrows show the direction of evolution. This image includes Decuriasuchus, Turfanosuchus, Gracilisuchus, Lewisuchus, Pseudhesperosuchus, Herrerasaurus, Tawa and Eoraptor.

Figure 2. The origin of dinosaurs to scale according to the LRT.  Gray arrows show the direction of evolution. This image includes Decuriasuchus, Turfanosuchus, Gracilisuchus, Lewisuchus, Pseudhesperosuchus, Herrerasaurus, Tawa and Eoraptor.

Several years ago
the above (Fig. 2) was published online. It remains the best graphic portrayal of basal Dinosauria and their outgroups to date, based on a much larger number of outgroup taxa than has ever been published before. Unfortunately, the Baron et al. team did not take advantage of this readily available and thoroughly verified hypothesis.

Baron MG, Norman DB, Barrett PM 2017. A new hypothesis of dinosaur relationships and early dinosaur evolution. Nature  543:501–506.



New radical dinosaur cladogram: Baron, Norman and Barrett 2017

Baron, Norman and Barrett 2017
have just allied Ornithischia with Theropoda to the exclusion of Sauropodomorpha. That radical hypothesis was not recovered by the large reptile tree (LRT, 980 taxa) nor any other study in the long history of dinosaurs. Despite the large size of their study, it was not large enough. And so taxon exclusion bites another group of well-meaning paleontologists who used traditional small inclusion sets.

From the Baron et al. abstract:
“For 130 years, dinosaurs have been divided into two distinct clades—Ornithischia and Saurischia. Here we present a hypothesis for the phylogenetic relationships of the major dinosaurian groups that challenges the current consensus concerning early dinosaur evolution and highlights problematic aspects of current cladistic definitions. Our study has found a sister-group relationship between Ornithischia and Theropoda (united in the new clade Ornithoscelida), with Sauropodomorpha and Herrerasauridae (as the redefined Saurischia) forming its monophyletic outgroup. This new tree topology requires redefinition and rediagnosis of Dinosauria and the subsidiary dinosaurian clades. In addition, it forces re-evaluations of early dinosaur cladogenesis and character evolution, suggests that hypercarnivory was acquired independently in herrerasaurids and theropods, and offers an explanation for many of the anatomical features previously regarded as notable convergences between theropods and early ornithischians.”

As a reminder, the fully resolved cladogram
at finds Herrerasaurus as a basal dinosaur arising from the Pseudhesperosuchus clade. Tawa (Fig. 1) and Buriolestes lead the way toward Theropoda. Barberenasuchus and Eodromaeus are basal to Phytodinosauria, which includes Sauropodomorpha + Ornithischia. So the Nature piece is totally different due to taxon exclusion and improper taxon inclusion.

Earlier heretical dinosaur origins were presented here with images and complete resolution with high Bootstrap scores at every or virtually every node.

Problems with the Baron et al. report

  1. Lack of resolution: Over dozens of nodes, only 5 bootstrap scores were over 50 (the minimum score that PAUP shows as fully resolved).
  2. Lack of correct proximal outgroup taxa (taxon exclusion) and they chose several wrong outgroup taxa (see below) because they had no large gamut analysis that established the correct outgroup taxon out of a larger gamut of choices
  3. Lack of several basal dinosaur taxa. (again, taxon exclusion, see below)
  4. Improper taxon inclusion: poposaurs, pterosaurs and lagerpetons are not related to dinos or their closest kin
  5. Lacking reconstructions for all pertinent basal/transitinal taxa so we can see their data at a glance, see if a gradual accumulation of traits can be observed and not have to slog through all the scores
Figure 1. Unrelated archosaurs. Silesaurus is a poposaur. Eoraptor is a phytodinosaur (note the big belly). And Tawa is a lean theropod.

Figure 1. Unrelated archosaurs mentioned in this blog. Silesaurus is a poposaur. Eoraptor is a phytodinosaur (note the big belly). And Tawa is a lean theropod.

LRT differences with the Baron et. al results

  1. Carnivorous Staurikosaurus, Herrerasaurus, Chindesaurus and Sanjuansaurus nest at the base of the herbivorous Sauropodomorpha.
  2. Herbivorous Eoraptor nests at the base of the Theropod with Tawa.
  3. Poorly known Saltopus sometimes nests as the last common ancestor of Dinosauria.
  4. Six taxa nest basal to dinosaurs in SupFig1 including the poposaur Silesaurus and kin. Silesaurus has ornithischian and theropod traits and so appears to make an ideal outgroup taxon,  but nests with neither clade when more taxa are included. This is the key problem with the study: pertinent taxon exclusion. 
  5. The lack of Gracilisuchus and other bipedal basal crocs that nest basal to dinos in the LRT certainly skewed results.

In an effort to understand Baron et al. I duplicated their outgroup taxon list
but retained all the LRT dinosaurs to see what would happen. The SupFigs are available free online at

  1. SupFig 1: When Euparkeria is the outgroup and Postosuchus is included: 3 trees result and (theropods Herrerasaurus + Tawa + Buriolestes) + (poposaurs Sacisaurus + Silesaurus) nest as the base of the Phytodinosauria, while bipedal croc Saltopus nests at the base of the Theropoda.
  2. SupFig 2: When the lepidosaur pterosaur Dimorphodon is the outgroup and Euparkeria + Postosuchus are excluded: 12 trees and basal scansoriopterygid birds (come to think of it, they DO look like Dimorphodon!) nest as basal dinosaurs, then the bird cladogram gets reversed such that basal becomes derived, but Phytodinosauria is retained.
  3. SupFig. 3: when Silesaurus is the outgroup: 12 trees and Phytodinosauria is retained in the LRT
  4. SupFig. 4: when no characters were treated as ordered. Neither does the  LRT order any characters, so this test was moot.

Dr. Kevin Padian said, 
“‘original and provocative reassessment of dinosaur origins and relationships”. And because Baron and his colleagues used well-accepted methods, he notes, the results can’t simply be dismissed as a different opinion or as mere speculation. “This will send people back to the drawing board,” he added in an interview.”

“There have been a lot of studies on the phylogenetic relationships, the family tree of the dinosaurs, but they’ve mostly been on individual dinosaurian groups. They haven’t really examined the entire dinosaur tree in such depth. And so this analysis had the advantage of using a different and larger set of critters than most previous trees. They’ve analyzed the characters used by others before and then also adding their own characteristics and getting their selves quite different configurations, radically different in fact.

The LRT has had, for several years, an even larger set of taxa, so large that any bias in selecting an outgroup taxon list has been minimized. Unfortunately, Baron et al. were biased and used traditional outgroup taxa that skewed their results.

Dr. Hans-DieterSues reported,
“For one thing, palaeontologists’ analyses of relations among species are keenly sensitive to which species are considered, as well as which and how many anatomical features are included, he says.”

Many more outgroup taxa would have minimized the inherent bias clearly present in Baron et al. When Silesaurus is your outgroup, herbivores will nest with carnivores. When you start your study with a goal in mind (read and listen to Baron’s comments) that’s never good. When you exclude taxa that have been shown to be pertinent to your study, that’s never good.

That’s what is here for (on the worldwide web). Free. Testable. And with a demonstrable gradual accumulation of traits along with minimal bias due to its large gamut.

I was surprised to see Nature print this
because they have not published relationship hypotheses in favor of  new specimens of note. Co-author Dr. David Norman has published for several decades and has a great reputation.

Baron MG, Norman DB, Barrett PM 2017. A new hypothesis of dinosaur relationships and early dinosaur evolution. Nature 543:501–506.

Trimerorhachis: a late survivor of the fin/finger transition?

Figure 1. Trimerorhachis was considered a dvinosaurian temnospondyl. Here both Trimerorhachis and Dvinosaurus nest low on the basal tetrapod tree, close to the fin/finger transition.

Figure 1. Flattened Trimerorhachis was considered a dvinosaurian temnospondyl. Here both Trimerorhachis and Dvinosaurus nest low on the basal tetrapod tree, close to the fin/finger transition, not within the Temnospondyli. Both are late survivors of a Devonian radiation.

Wikipedia reports:
Trimerorhachis (Early Permian, (Cope 1878, Case 1935, Schoch 2013; up to 1m in length) is an extinct genus of dvinosaurian temnospondyl within the family Trimerorhachidae. The trunk is long and the limbs are relatively short. Many bones are poorly ossified, indicating that Trimerorhachis was poorly suited for movement on land. The presence of a branchial apparatus indicates that Trimerorhachis had external gills in life. The body of Trimerorhachis is also completely covered by small and very thin osteoderms, which overlap and can be up to 20 layers thick. The scales were more similar to fish scales than they were to reptile scales, according to Colbert 1955. However, Olson 1979 disputed that interpretation. Specimens are often preserved as masses of bones that are mixed together and densely packed in slabs of rock”

Figure 2. Trimerorhachis forelimb and hind limb in situ and reconstructed.

Figure 2. Trimerorhachis forelimb and hind limb in situ and reconstructed. Pawley 1979 did not report metacarpals or a pubis. It is possible and perhaps likely that only 4 metacarpals were present along with two phalanges, but its worth exploring all possibilities. 

As a late (Early Permian) survivor of a Late Devonian radiation
Trimerorhachis evolved by convergence certain traits found in other more derived tetrapods, like a longer femur and open palate (narrow, bowed pterygoids). Testing all possibilities while minimizing assumptions is the most valuable benefit of a large gamut phylogenetic analysis conducted by unbiased software. Workers used to eyeball specimens in the pre-computer days.

Figure 2. Trimerorhachis pelvis. The pubis is not ossified.

Figure 3. Trimerorhachis pelvis. The pubis is not ossified here, according to Pawley 1979, but see Fig. 1.

Like other workers,
Pawley 1979 considered Trimerorhachis close to Dvinosaurus (Fig. 7) and both thought to be derived from the basal temnospondyl Balanerpeton and Dendrerpeton. The large reptile tree (LRT) nests both taxa at the base of the Lepodpondyli, not closely related to Trimerorhachis and distinct from Temnospondyli. Pawley supports the hypothesis that aquatic ‘temnospondyls,’ like Trimerorhachis, had terrestrial ancestors. By contrast, the LRT nests Trimerorhachis with weak-limbed taxa more primitive than any temnospondyl.

the LRT nests Batrachosaurus and Gerrothorax in the Dvinosaurus / Trimerorhachis clade. This clade features horizontally opposed dorsal ribs and an equally flattened skull. Another flattened taxon, Ossinodus, is closely related. I have not seen limb material for any of these taxa. Acanthostega is the closest taxon that preserves limbs.

Figure 3. Trimerorhachis hind limb and pes from Pawley 1979.

Figure 4. Trimerorhachis hind limb and pes from Pawley 1979 and reconstructed here.

Pawley 1979 noted,
“The vast majority of the [Trimerorhachis] specimens consists of ornamental cranial and pectoral girdle bones, intercentra, and larger elements of the appendicular skeleton. Neural arches, pleurocentra, ribs and distal limb elements are rare.” No sacrals were found by Pawley. No dorsal ribs had uncinate processes (like those in Ichthyostega and Eryops). The chevrons were long and tapered distally (creating a fin?). The interclavicle was diamond-shaped with a longer anterior portion.

Figure 4. Trimerorhachis humerus changes during ontogeny

Figure 5. Trimerorhachis humerus changes during ontogeny

The humerus
(Fig. 5) was  L-shaped and the degree of torsion varied between specimens from 45º to 90º. The distal end always exhibited a low degree of ossification.

Figure 6. Trimerorhachis cladogram. Gray area is the Temnospondyli clade.

Figure 6. Trimerorhachis cladogram. Gray area is the Temnospondyli clade.

Pawley considered
Trimerorhachis a secondarily adapted aquatic temnospondyl. All workers have noted the wide open palate vacuities that characterize most, but not all members of the Temnospondyli. By contrast, the LRT nests Trimerorhachis with taxa that had not yet left the water completely and shared a flat morphology with Tiktaalik and Panderichthys.

This is the second time
elongate limbs and digits have appeared by convergence in basal tetrapods. Earlier Pholidogaster and kin provided the first exceptions to the rule. Note that all known specimens of Trimerorhachis are Early Permian, some tens of millions of years later than the Late Devonian radiation of that clade. The Ichthyostega line is the one that ultimately produced crown Tetrapoda via a sister to Eucritta.

FIgure 8. Dvinosaurus nests with Trimerorhachis and also has ceratobranchial (gill) bones.

FIgure 7. Dvinosaurus nests with Trimerorhachis and also has ceratobranchial (gill) bones. The loss of the intertemoral is shown here in light green merging to the postorbital in orange. 

If these nestings are not correct
and Trimerorhachis ultimately nests higher on the basal tetrapod tree, then we’re witnessing massive convergence of another sort, convergence that allies Trimerorhachis with tetrapods at the fin/finger transition. I’d like to see limbs for Gerrothorax or any other plagiosaur, if available.

Figure 9. Ossinodus is a close relative of Trimerorhachis in the LRT.

Figure 8. Ossinodus is a close relative of Trimerorhachis in the LRT. 

By the way, I find this fascinating…
week after week, far and away the most popular page(s) on this blog continue to be on the origin of bats.

Berman DS and Reisz RR 1980. A new species of Trimerorhachis (Amphibia, Temnospondyli) from the Lower Permian Abo Formation of New Mexico, with discussion of Permian faunal distributions in that state. Annals of the Carnegie Museum. 49: 455–485.
Case EC 1935. Description of a collection of associated skeletons of Trimerorhachis. University of Michigan Contributions from the Museum of Paleontology. 4 (13): 227–274.
Colbert EH 1955. Scales in the Permian amphibian Trimerorhachis. American Museum Novitates. 1740: 1–17.
Olson EC 1979. Aspects of the biology of Trimerorhachis (Amphibia: Temnospondyli). Journal of Paleontology. 53 (1): 1–17.
Pawley K 2007. The postcranial skeleton of Trimerorhachis insignis Cope, 1878 (Temnospondyli: Trimerorhachidae): a plesiomorphic temnospondyl from the Lower Permian of North America. Journal of Paleontology. 81 (5):
Williston SW 1915. Trimerorhachis, a Permian temnospondyl amphibian. The Journal of Geology. 23 (3): 246–255.
Williston SW 1916. The skeleton of Trimerorhachis. The Journal of Geology. 24 (3): 291–297.


Trimerorhachis and kin to scale

Updated April 23 with a revision to the tabulars of Panderichthys. Thanks DM! My bad. 

Yesterday we took a revisionary look at Trimerorhachis insignis (Cope 1878, Case 1935, Schoch 2013; Early Permian; 1m in length; Fig. 1). Today we take a quick peek at the taxa that surround it in the large reptile tree (LRT, 980 taxa, Fig. 1) all presented to scale. Several of these interrelationships have gone previously unrecognized. Hopefully seeing related taxa together will help one focus on their similarities and differences.

Figure 1. Trimerorhachis and kin to scale. Here are Panderichthys, Tiktaalik, Ossinodus, Dvinosaurus, Acanthostega, Batrachosuchus and Gerrothorax. Maybe those tabular horns on Acanthostega are really supratemporal horns, based on comparisons to related taxa.

Figure 1. Trimerorhachis and kin to scale. Here are Panderichthys, Tiktaalik, Ossinodus, Dvinosaurus, Acanthostega, Batrachosuchus and Gerrothorax. Maybe those tabular horns on Acanthostega are really supratemporal horns, based on comparisons to related taxa.

And once again
phylogenetic miniaturization appears at the base of a tetrapod clade. Note: the small size of Trimerorhachis (Fig. 1) may be due to the tens of millions of years that separate it in the Early Permian from its initial radiation in the Late Devonian, at which time similar specimens might have been larger. Provisionallly, we have to go with available evidence.

We start with…

Panderichthys rhombolepis (Gross 1941; Frasnian, Late Devonian, 380 mya; 90-130cm long; Fig. 1). Distinct from basal taxa, like Osteolepis, Pandericthys had a wide low skull, a wide low torso, a short tail and five digits (or metacarpals). No interfrontal was present. The orbits were further back and higher on the skull. Dorsal ribs, a pelvis and large bones within the four limbs were present.

Tiktaalik roseae (Daeschler, Shubin and Jenkins 2006; Late Devonian, 375mya: Fig. 1) nests between Pandericthys and Trimerorhachis in the LRT. Distinct from Panderichthys the opercular bones were absent and the orbits were even further back on the skull.

Ossinodus pueri (Warren and Turner 2004; Viséan, Lower Carboniferous; Fig. 1) was orignally considered close to Whatcheeria. Here it nests between Trimerorhachis and Acanthostega. The presence of an intertemporal appears likely. Distinct from Acanthostega, the skull is flatter, the naris is larger. Distinct from sister taxa, the maxilla is deep and houses twin canine fangs. A third fang arises from the palatine.

Acanthostega gunnari (Jarvik 1952; Clack 2006; Famennian, Late Devonian, 365mya; 60cm in length; Fig. 1) was an early tetrapod documenting the transition from fins to fingers and toes. Based on its size and placement, the nearly circular bone surrounding the otic notch is here identified as a supratemporal, not a tabular, which appears to be lost or a vestige fused to the supratemporal. This taxon is derived from a sister to Ossinodus and appears to have been an evolutionary dead end.

Trimerorhachis insignis (Cope 1878, Case 1935, Schoch 2013; Early Permian; 1m in length; Fig. 1) was considered a temnospondyl close to Dvinosaurus, but here nests as a late surviving basal tetrapod from the Late Devonian fin to finger transition. It is close to Ossinodus and still basal to Dvinosaurus (Fig. 1) and the plagiosaurs. As a late survivor, Trimerorhachis evolved certain traits found in other more derived tetrapods by convergence, like a longer femur and open palate. The presence of a branchial apparatus indicates that Trimerorhachis had gills in life. Dorsally Trimerorhachis was covered with elongated scales, similar to fish scales.

Dvinosaurus primus (Amalitzky 1921; Late Permian; PIN2005/35; Fig. 1) Dvinosauria traditionally include Neldasaurus among tested taxa. Here Dvinosaurus nests basal to plagiosaurs like Batrachosuchus and Gerrothorax and was derived from a sister to Trimerorhachis.

Batrachosuchus browni (Broom 1903; Early Triassic, 250 mya; Fig. 1) nests with Gerrothorax, but does not have quite so wide a skull.

Gerrothorax pulcherrimus (Nilsson 1934, Jenkins et al. 2008; Late Triassic; Fig. 1) was originally considered a plagiosaurine temnospondyl. Here it nests with the Trimerorhachis clade some of which  share a lack of a supratemporal-tabular rim, straight lateral ribs and other traits.

This clade of flathead basal tetrapods
is convergent with the flat-headed Spathicephalus and Metoposaurus clades and several others.

Berman DS and Reisz RR 1980. A new species of Trimerorhachis (Amphibia, Temnospondyli) from the Lower Permian Abo Formation of New Mexico, with discussion of Permian faunal distributions in that state. Annals of the Carnegie Museum. 49: 455–485.
Broom R 1903. On a new Stegocephalian (Batrachosuchus browni) from the Karroo Beds of Aliwal North, South Africa. Geological Magazine, New Series, Decade IV 10(11):499-501
Case EC 1935. 
Description of a collection of associated skeletons of Trimerorhachis. University of Michigan Contributions from the Museum of Paleontology. 4 (13): 227–274.
Clack JA 2006. The emergence of early tetrapods. Palaeogeography Palaeoclimatology Palaeoecology. 232: 167–189.
Clack JA 2009. The fin to limb transition: new data, interpretations, and hypotheses from paleontology and developmental biology. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences. 37: 163–179.
Coates MI 2014. The Devonian tetrapod Acanthostega gunnari Jarvik: Postcranial anatomy, basal tetrapod interrelationships and patterns of skeletal evolution. Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Coates MI and Clack JA 1990. Polydactly in the earliest known tetrapod limbs. Nature 347: 66-69.
Colbert EH 1955. Scales in the Permian amphibian. American Museum Novitates. 1740: 1–17.
Daeschler EB, Shubin NH and Jenkins FA, Jr 2006. A Devonian tetrapod-like fish and the evolution of the tetrapod body plan. Nature. 440 (7085): 757–763.
Gross W 1941. Über den Unterkiefer einiger devonischer Crossopterygier (About the lower jaw of some Devonian crossopterygians), Abhandlungen der preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften Jahrgang.
Jarvik E 1952. On the fish-like tail in the ichtyhyostegid stegocephalians. Meddelelser om Grønland 114: 1–90.
Jenkins FA Jr, Shubin NH, Gates SM and Warren A 2008. Gerrothorax pulcherrimus from the Upper Triassic Fleming Fjord Formation of East Greenland and a reassessment of head lifting in temnospondyl feeding. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 28 (4): 935–950.
Nilsson T 1934. Vorläufige mitteilung über einen Stegocephalenfund aus dem Rhät Schonens. Geologiska Föreningens I Stockholm Förehandlingar 56:428-442.
Olson EC 1979. Aspects of the biology of Trimerorhachis (Amphibia: Temnospondyli). Journal of Paleontology. 53 (1): 1–17.
Pawley K 2007. The postcranial skeleton of Trimerorhachis insignis Cope, 1878 (Temnospondyli: Trimerorhachidae): a plesiomorphic temnospondyl from the Lower Permian of North America. Journal of Paleontology. 81 (5):
Warren A and Turner S 2004. The first stem tetrapod from the Lower Carboniferous of Gondwana. Palaeontology 47(1):151-184.
Williston SW 1915. 
Trimerorhachis, a Permian temnospondyl amphibian. The Journal of Geology. 23 (3): 246–255.
Williston SW 1916. The skeleton of Trimerorhachis. The Journal of Geology. 24 (3): 291–297.



New Perspectives on Pterosaur Palaeobiology volume

The 2015 pterosaur meeting in Portsmouth, England
brings us several new papers. The meeting and abstracts were previewed here and reported on here by a participant.

From the intro: “The field of pterosaur research in palaeontology continues its rapid growth and diversification that began in recent decades. This volume is a collection of papers on these extinct flying reptiles that includes work on their taxonomy, behaviour, ecology and relationships.”

Oddly, the number of abstracts far exceeded the very few papers this time.

Palmer 2017 wrote:
“The preservation of the wing membrane of pterosaurs is very poor and the available fossil evidence does not allow its properties to be reconstructed. In contrast, the fossil record for the wing bones is relatively good and the advent of CT scanning has made it possible to build high-fidelity structural models of the wing spar. The bending strength of the wing spar of a 6 m wingspan ornithocheirid pterosaur is used to infer the likely membrane tension. The tensions required to suppress aeroelastic flutter and to minimize ballooning of the membrane under flight loads are also estimated. All three estimates are of similar magnitude and imply that the membrane must have contained high-modulus material, supporting the view that the reinforcing aktinofibrils were keratinous.”

Contra Palmer’s unfounded assertion, there are several specimens of pterosaurs that provide an excellent view of the wing membrane. For the most part wing shape designs continue to be stuck in the Dark Ages among several pterosaur workers with some actually flipping the wing tips. Those problems need to improve before further work on pterosaur wings.

Dalla Vecchia 2017 wrote:
“An incomplete bone from the latest Cretaceous dinosaur site of Villaggio del Pescatore (Trieste Province, Italy) is definitely a wing metacarpal of a pterodactyloid pterosaur. It represents the only Italian Cretaceous pterosaur remains known, as well as the only pterosaur from the Adriatic Carbonate Platform. With an estimated minimum length of 136 mm, it belongs to a relatively small individual relative to the standard of latest Cretaceous pterodactyloids. It is not as elongated and gracile as azhdarchid wing metacarpals and shows a mix of features found in Pteranodon and some more basal pterodactyloids. It is one of the very few remains of putative non-azhdarchid pterosaurs from the upper Campanian–Maastrichtian worldwide and supports the view that the Azhdarchidae were not the only pterosaur clade existing during latest Cretaceous times.”

Always good to see the gamut of pterosaurs increase.

Witton 2017 wrote:
“Understanding the ecological roles of pterosaurs is a challenging pursuit, but one aided by a growing body of fossil evidence for their dietary preferences and roles as food sources for other species. Pterosaur foraging behaviour is represented by preserved gut content, stomach regurgitates, coprolites and feeding traces. Pterosaurs being eaten by other species are recorded by tooth marks and teeth embedded in their fossil bones, consumer gut content and regurgitate, and their preservation entangled with predatory animals. This palaeoecological record has improved in recent years, but remains highly selective. The Jurassic rhamphorhynchid Rhamphorhynchus, Cretaceous ornithocheiroid Pteranodon and azhdarchid pterosaurs currently have the most substantial palaeoecological records. The food species and consumers of these taxa conform to lifestyle predictions for these groups. Rhamphorhynchus and Pteranodon ate and were eaten by aquatic species, matching expectations of these animals as sea-going, perhaps partly aquatic species. Possible azhdarchid pterosaur foraging traces alongside pterosaur tracks, and evidence that these animals were eaten by dinosaurs and Crocodyliformes, are consistent with hypotheses that azhdarchids foraged and lived in terrestrial settings. Fossil evidence of pterosaur palaeoecology remains rare: researchers are strongly encouraged to put specimens showing details of dietary preferences, foraging strategies or interactions with other animals on record.”

When Pteranodon is no longer considered an ornithocheiroid by ptero workers, I will celebrate.

Bennett and Penkalski 2017 wrote:
“Four specimens of the pterosaur Pteranodon exhibit patterns of irregular alternating light and dark bands on the lateral surfaces of the upper jaw anterior to the nasoantorbital fenestra. Examinations reveal that the maxilla and premaxilla of Pteranodon consisted of two thin sheets of bone interconnected by regularly spaced septa with the spaces contained within presumably pneumatized, resulting in a structure analogous to modern honeycomb sandwich panels. The alternating light and dark bands resulted from waves of bone deposition moving anteriorly along the external surface of the lateral sheet of bone and laying down thin laminae of new bone while bone was simultaneously resorbed from the internal surface of the lateral sheet to maintain its thickness. The specimens that exhibit the bands were immature males and no banding was found in mature specimens or immature females. Therefore, the presence of the bands in immature males is interpreted as correlated with the enlargement and reshaping of the rostrum as males approached and attained sexual maturity.”

Wonder if those immature males were really just more primitive species with smaller size and smaller crest? Earlier Bennett erred by considering the morphological differences in various Pteranodon specimens ontogenetic, rather than phylogenetic. He failed to realize that Pteranodon specimens don’t get to giant size with giant crests without going through transitional mid-size specimens derived from certain small, crestless Germanodactylus specimens. The lamination of pterosaur skull bones is something first described here with the anterior extension of the jugal nearly to the tip of the rostrum. However, what these two workers are describing appears to be another thing entirely.

Martill and Moser 2017 wrote:
“Six specimens accessioned to the Bavarian State Collection for Palaeontology and Geology in Munich, Germany, in 1966 are identified as coming from a gigantic pterodactyloid pterosaur. The previously undescribed material was obtained in 1955 by Jean Otto Haas and compares favourably in size with the type specimen of the Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) azhdarchid pterosaur Arambourgiania philadelphiae (Arambourg 1959) from the same locality/region. The material represents fragments of two cervical vertebrae, a neural arch, a left femur, a ?radius, and a metacarpal IV and bones of problematic identity, and does not duplicate the type material of Arambourgiania. The timing of its collection and its locality of Ruseifa, Jordan suggest it might pertain to the same individual as the holotype.” 

Interesting. More parts for the same specimen? That’s like more pieces to the same puzzle. On the other hand, when the term ‘pterodactyloid’ pterosaur falls by the wayside, I will also celebrate. Azhdarchids are not closely related tp Pterodactylus.

Rigal et al. 2017 wrote:
“A specimen of a pterodactyloid pterosaur from the Upper Tunbridge Wells Sand Formation (Early Cretaceous, Valanginian) of Bexhill, East Sussex, southern England is described. It comprises a small fragment of jaw with teeth, a partial vertebral column and associated incomplete wing bones. The juxtaposition of the bones suggests that the specimen was originally more complete and articulated. Its precise phylogenetic relationships are uncertain but it represents an indeterminate lonchodectid with affinities to Lonchodectes sagittirostris (Owen 1874) which is reviewed here, and may belong in Lonchodraco Rodrigues & Kellner 2013. This specimen is only the third record of pterosaurs from this formation.”

England is famous for excellent preservation of pterosaur bits and pieces, mostly jaws, as is the case here. The specimen is named Serradraco and has been known for over 150 years.

Henderson 2017 wrote:
“Simple, three-dimensional, digital models of the crania and mandibles of 22 pterosaurs – 13 pterodactyloids and nine non-pterodactyloids (‘rhamphorhynchoids’) – were generated to investigate gross-level mechanical aspects of the skulls as they would related to feeding behaviour such as bite force and speed of jaw motions. The key parameter was the determination of second moments of area of the mid-muzzle region and the computation of the bending moment relative to the occiput. The shorter, stockier skulls of basal ‘rhamphorhynchoids’ were the strongest for their size in terms of potential resistance to dorso-ventral bending, and this finding correlates with their robust dentitions. More derived ‘rhamphorhynchoids’ showed the start of a trend towards weaker skulls, but faster jaw adduction was interpreted to be an adaptation for the snatching of small prey. Pterodactyloids continued the trend to lengthen the skull and to reduce its cross-sectional area, resulting in less stiff skulls, but more rapid opening and closing of the jaws. Changes in the rear of the skulls and the development of coronoid eminences on the mandibles of all the pterodactyloids are correlated with the reduction in bite force and a concomitant increase in jaw closing speed.”

This makes sense, though I worry that ‘simple digital models’ by Henderson have not fared well in the past.

Hone, Jiang and Xu 2017 wrote: 
“After being inaccessible for a number of years, the holotype and other specimens of the dsungaripterid pterodactyloid pterosaur Noripterus complicidens are again available for study. Numerous taxa assigned to the Dsungaripteridae have been described since the erection of Noripterus, but with limited comparisons to this genus. Based on the information from Young’s original material here we revise the taxonomic identity of N. complicidens and that of other Asian dsungaripterids. We conclude that N. complicidens is likely to be distinct from the material recovered from Mongolia and this latter material should be placed in a separate genus.”

Okay. Wonderful. Thought I think some of us knew that already based on photo data.

And speaking of southern England…
did the U. of Leicester clade ever find the grad student they advertised for to prove the pterosaur quad leap hypothesis?

2017. New Perspectives on Pterosaur Palaeobiology. Hone  DWE, Witton MP and Martill DM editors. Geological Society, London SP455.
Bennett SC and Penkalski P 2017. Waves of bone deposition on the rostrum of the pterosaur Pteranodon.
Dalla Vecchia FM 2017. A wing metacarpal from Italy and its implications for latest Cretaceous pterosaur diversity.
Henderson DM 2017. Using three-dimensional, digital models of pterosaur skulls for the investigation of their relative bite forces and feeding styles.
Hone DWE, Jiang S, and Xu X 2017. A taxonomic revision of Noripterus complicidens and Asian members of the Dsungaripteridae.
Martill DM and Moser M 2017. Topotype specimens probably attributable to the giant azhdarchid pterosaur Arambourgiania philadelphiae (Arambourg 1959).
Palmer C 2017. Inferring the properties of the pterosaur wing membrane.
Rigal S, Martill DM, and Sweetman SC 2017. A new pterosaur specimen from the Upper Tunbridge Wells Sand Formation (Cretaceous, Valanginian) of southern England and a review of Lonchodectes sagittirostris (Owen 1874).
Witton MP 2017. Pterosaurs in Mesozoic food webs: a review of fossil evidence.


Correcting mistakes on Brachydectes

Perhaps one of the most difficult skulls
in all of the Tetrapoda is Brachydectes newberryi ((Wellstead 1991; Latest Carboniferous, Fig. 1). Many bones are in their standard positions. However, the bones posterior to the orbit have moved around, fused or become lost. That’s where the trouble begins.

Figure 1. Brachydectes newberryi has some difficult to identify bones just aft of the orbit due to fusion and reduction. Brachydectes (Laysorophus) elongatus (Fig. 2) provides Rosetta Stone clues as to what is happening in this clade.

Figure 1. Brachydectes newberryi has some difficult to identify bones just aft of the orbit due to fusion and reduction. Brachydectes (Laysorophus tricarinatus) elongatus (Fig. 2) provides Rosetta Stone clues as to what is happening in this clade. Note the tabulars may be more of a square shape, as Pardo and Anderson drew, but did not identify as such. 

Finding data for
Brachydectes elongatus (formerly Lysorophus tricarinatus; Cope 1877, Carroll and Gaskill  1978, Wellstead 1991; Permian, 250 mya; AMNH 6172 ) provides many needed clues as to the identity of the mystery bones.  The data comes from Carroll and Gaskill 1978 and Wellstead 1991. Earlier hypotheses included errors that I want to correct now. Based on phylogenetic bracketing these taxa nest with the caecilians Eocaecilia and Dermophis all derived from elongate microsaurs close to Archerontiscus, Oestocephalus, Adelogyrinus, Adelospondylus and Microbrachis in the large reptile tree (LRT). Unfotunatey, the latter taxa do not reduce the cheek and temple elements. So they were of little help.

Figure 2. Brachydectes elongatus (Lysorophus tricarinatus) from Carroll and Gaskill 1978 and Wellstead 1991 with colors and new bone identities added.

Figure 2. Brachydectes elongatus (Lysorophus tricarinatus) from Carroll and Gaskill 1978 and Wellstead 1991 with colors and new bone identities added.

As you can see
in figure 2, most of the skull roofing bones and anterior skull bones of Brachydectes elongatus are in their standard spots and are therefore uncontroversial. So let’s nail down the rest of the bones with a parsimony check.

Figure 3. Brachydectes species compared to scale and not to scale. Size alone might warrant generic distinction.

Figure 3. Brachydectes species compared to scale and not to scale. Size alone might warrant generic distinction.

  1. No sister taxa have a large supraoccipital that contacts the parietals and extends over the skull roof. Here that light tan median bone is identified as a set of fused post parietals, as in sister taxa. A more typical supraoccipital may be peeking out as a sliver over the foramen magnum (spinal nerve opening, beneath the fused postparietals.
  2. No sister taxa separate the postparietals, so those in light red are identified here as tabulars, bones which typically form the posterior rim of sister taxa skulls and often provide corners to the skull.
  3. Typcially anterior to, but this time lateral to the new tabulars are the bright green supratemporals. As in sister taxa they maintain contact with the postorbitals (yellow/amber) and parietals (lavender/light purple). They form skull corners in B. elongulatus and rise above the plane of the cranium in B. newberryi – but still act as skull corners.
  4. The jugal is completely absent (unless a sliver of it is fused to the yellow-green quadratojugal lateral to the quadrate, The maxilla posterior to the eyeball is also absent.
  5. The postfrontal is fused to the parietal, with a slender strip maintaining contact with the postfrontal.
  6. The postorbital is in its standard position at the posterior orbit. Here it is roofed over by the supratemporal, as in Microbrachis.
  7. The squamosal is the tricky bone. It appears as a separate bright magenta element in B. elongulatus, but must be absent or fused to the postorbital in B. newberryi because it is otherwise not visible. I agree with previous workers on the identity of the squamosal in B. elongatus.

Bones may fuse, drift and change shape, but their connections to other bones often remain to help identify them using phylogenetic bracketing. Of course that requires a valid phylogenetic framework, one that minimizes taxon exclusion problems. The tabulars do not trade places with the postparietals in this hypothesis. The tabulars maintain their original places, lateral to the fused postparietals, bones which fuse by convergence in other taxa. Perhaps the concept of an autapomorphic oversized supraoccipittal was the source of earlier errors.

It’s interesting
that the opisthotics are posteriorly covered by the exoccipitals. That usually does not happen in most tetrapods, but is further emphasized in the caecilians, Eocaecilia and Dermophis. In competing candidate taxa Rhynchonkos, Batropetes and Microrator, a different pattern is present with the postparietals descending to cover large portions of the occiput and the tabulars are fused or absent.

Wellstead (1991) and perhaps others
made Brachydectes elongatus and Brachydectes newberryi congeneric, but I see enough differences here to warrant separate genera.

Pardo and Anderson 2016 reported, 
“Contra the proposals of some workers, we find no evidence of expected lissamphibian synapomorphies in the skull morphology in Brachydectes newberryi, and instead recognize a number of derived amniote characteristics within the braincase and suspensorium.

Our study reveals similarities between the braincase of Brachydectes and brachystelechid recumbirostrans, corroborating prior work suggesting a close relationship between these taxa.”

Pardo and Anderson freehand
a Brachydectes newberryi skull reconstruction to supplement their CT scans, but do not label the bones in the drawing. Present are paired bones posterior to the parietals and a single median bone posterior to those. Based on their text, the bones posterior to the parietals are identified as post parietals, “as in the majority of early tetrapods.’ Unfortunately, sister taxa among the microsaurs do not have a large supraoccipital. So this bone has to be reconsidered as a post parietal, which all related taxa have arching over the foramen magnum. Pardo and Anderson do not mention supratemporals, but all sister taxa in the LRT have them.

according to Wikipedia, are lepospondyl amphibians that include a large number of microsaurs. Of course, those are not derived amniotes. The LRT nests Brachydectes within the Microsauria (which is not a paraphyletic group here). The phylogenetic topology of Recumbirostrans recovered by Glienke (2012) do not create the same topology in the LRT, perhaps due to taxon exclusion. Glienke recovers Eocaecilia close to Rhynchonkos (in the absence of Adelospondyli). In both studies Microbrachis is basal.

The process of discovery
is often the process of correcting errors. And, as you can see, I’m glad to do so when errors are detected, whether out there or in here. Apologies for earlier errors. We’re all learning and helping each other to learn here.


Carroll RL and Gaskill P 1978. The order Microsauria. American Philosophical Society Memoires 126: 211 pp.
Cope ED 1877. Description of extinct Vertebrata from the Permian and Triassic formations of the United States. Proc. Am. Philos. Soc. 17: 182-193.
Pardo JD and Anderson JS 2016. Cranial Morphology of the Carboniferous-Permian Tetrapod Brachydectes newberryi (Lepospondyli, Lysorophia): New Data from μCT. PLoS ONE 11(8): e0161823. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0161823
Wellstead C F 1991. Taxonomic revision of the Lysorophia, Permo-Carboniferous lepospondyl amphibians. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 209: 1–90.


Koilops: a new sister for Greerepeton

Updated March 15, 2019 and March 20, 2020
with a new interpretation of the skull sutures of the stem tetrapod Tiktaalik. Now, with the addition of more closely related taxa, Koilops is a finned fish that nests basal to Elpistostege,  Spathicephalus and Tiktaalik off the main lineage of the fin to finger transition.

Figure 2. Koilops is a flat-headed sister to Spathicephalus, but with teeth, larger orbits and a shorter snout

Figure 2. Koilops is a flat-headed sister to Spathicephalus, but with teeth, larger orbits and a shorter snout

Koilops herma (Clack et al. 2016; NMS G. 2013.39/14) Tournasian, early Carboniferous ~375 mya) is a temnospondyl with a flat skull and large orbits nesting between Greererpeton and Spathicephalus. The nares were close to the rim of the short rorstrum. The pineal foramen was enormous. The teeth were small and sharp. The nasals were broad.

Clack et al. (14 other authors) 2016. Phylogenetic and environmental context of a Tournaisian tetrapod fauna. Nature ecology & evolution 1(0002):1-11.

Apateon and the origin of salamanders + frogs

Figure 1. Apateon overall and the skull in palatal and dorsal views. This taxon nests between Doleserpeton and Gerobatrachus in the LRT.

Figure 1. Apateon overall and the skull in palatal and dorsal views. This taxon nests between Doleserpeton and Gerobatrachus in the LRT.

Apateon pedestris (von Meyer 1844, Early Permian, 295mya; 12 cm in length) was long considered a temnospondyl in the family Branchiosauridae. Here Apateon nests between Doleserpeton and Gerobatrachus in the lepospondyl lineage of frogs, like Rana and salamanders like Andrias.

Resembling a small salamander with a long, laterally flattened tail, Apateon had a shorter rostrum and large orbits than Doleserpeton. The pineal opening was larger. The ilium was more erect. The pubis was missing. The ectopterygoid did not contact the maxilla and the palatine did so only with a narrow process. At present, no other taxa in the LRT (978 taxa) do this.

Small scales covered the body. Three pairs of external gills were present for underwater respiration. Many species are known, as well as a good ontogenetic series.

Anderson 2008 reported, 
“Branchiosaurs [including Apateon] are closely related to amphibamids, if not included in the latter group, and have been suggested to be closely related to salamanders because of shared similarities in the sequence of cranial ossification.”

“New transitional fossils like the stem batrachian Gerobatrachus have filled in the morphological gap between amphibamid temnospondyls and the earliest frogs and salamanders, and this portion of the lissamphibian origins question appears very well supported.”

The LRT recovers
Amphibamus much closer to the base of the lepospondyls, about 5 nodes distant from Apateon. Of course, neither are closely associated with temnospondyls in the LRT, despite the open palate, otic notch and other convergent traits.

The apparent lack of gill-less adults among all of the apparent larval gilled specimens of Apateon was a cause of consternation for awhile. The new largest specimen (Frobisch and Schoch 2009) appears to indicate an adult specimen. It had partially interdigitating and tight sutures of the skull roof, a high degree of ossification and differentiation of the postcranium as compared to smaller larval specimens. Uncinate processes indicate that this specimen represents an adult. However, it lacks ossifications of the exoccipitals and quadrates, intercentra, and the coracoid as seen in metamorphosed specimens. Frobisch and Schoch conclude, “The anatomical evidence at hand clearly indicates that both life history strategies, metamorphosis and neoteny, were established in Paleozoic branchiosaurids.”

Anderson JS 2008. Focal Reviews: The Origin(s) of Modern Amphibians. Eovlutionary Biology 35:231-247.
Anderson JS et al. 2008.  
A stem batrachian from the Early Permian of Texas
and the origin of frogs and salamanders. Nature 453 (7194): 515–518.
Frobisch N and Schoch RR 2009. The largest specimen of Apateon and the life history pathway of neotony in the Paleozoic temnospondyl family Branchiosauridae. Fossil Record 12(1):83-90.
von Meyer H 1844. Briefliche Mittheilung an Prof. Bronn gerichtet. Neues Jahrbuch für Geognosie, Geologie und Petrefakten-Kunde 1844: 329-340.


Distribution of ‘key’ traits in basal tetrapods

Before the advent of phylogenetic analysis,
paleontologists attempted to define clades with a short list of synapomorphies. In this way they were getting close to the dangers of pulling a Larry Martin. Many taxa, like pterosaurs and Vancleavea were (and are) considered enigmas because they seemed to appear suddenly in the fossil record with a short suite of traits that did not appear in other reptiles. That was only true back then because paleontologists were only considering short lists of traits.

After the advent of phylogenetic analysis
considering long lists of traits, the rule of maximum parsimony allowed clades to include members that do not have a short list of key traits. For instance some reptiles, like snakes, do not have limbs, but that’s okay based on the rule of maximum parsimony as demonstrated in the large reptile tree (LRT, 977 taxa, subsets shown in Figs. 1-5).

Before the advent of phylogenetic analysis
Carroll (1988) divided basal tetrapods into labyrinthodonts and lepospondyls and presented short lists of key traits.


  1. evolved directly from rhipidistian fish
  2. labyrinthine infolding of the dentine
  3. palate fangs and replacement pits
  4. vertebral centra composed of more than one element
  5. otic notch
  6. large in size


  1. a heterogeneous assemblage of groups with perhaps several origins from among various labyrinthodonts
  2. simple (non-labyrinthine) teeth
  3. no palate fangs
  4. vertebral centra composed of one element
  5. no otic notch
  6. small in size

By contrast,
the large reptile tree introduces a non-traditional topology in which lepospondyls have a single origin. Below (Figs. 1-5) the distribution of several traits are presented graphically.

Figure 1. Distribution of the solid and open palate architectures in basal tetrapods in the LRT topology.

Figure 1. Distribution of the solid and open palate architectures in basal tetrapods in the LRT topology.

Open palate distribution
Basal tetrapods have a solid palate (Fig. 1) in which the pterygoid is broad and leaves no space around the medial cultriform process. Other taxa have narrow pterygoids and large open spaces surrounding the cultriform process. Still others are midway between the two extremes. Traditional topologies attempt to put all open palate taxa into a single clade. Here the open palate evolved three times by convergence.

Figure 2. Size distribution among basal tetrapods in the LRT topology

Figure 2. Size distribution among basal tetrapods in the LRT topology

The length of basal tetrapods
falls below 60 cm in Eucritta and more derived taxa. It also falls below 60 cm in Ostelepis, at the origin of Tetrapoda and Paratetrapoda.

Figure 3. Distribution of single vertebrae among basal tetrapods in the LRT.

Figure 3. Distribution of single vertebrae among basal tetrapods in the LRT. Note: Phlegethonita now nests with the microsaurs. 

Single piece centra
appear in frogs + salamanders and microsaurs. Intercentra appear in all other taxa.

Figure 6. Distribution of palatal fangs among basal tetrapods in the LRT.

Figure 6. Distribution of palatal fangs among basal tetrapods in the LRT.

Palate fangs
appear in all basal paratetrapods and tetrapods except Spathicephalus and Gerrothorax. Exceptionally, Seymouria also had palate fangs.

Figure 7. Distribution of the otic notch among basal tetrapods in the LRT.

Figure 7. Distribution of the otic notch among basal tetrapods in the LRT.

The otic notch
is widespread among basal tetrapods. Those without an otic notch include

  1. Six flat-skulled temnospondyls in which the tabular contacts the squamosal. Some of these, like Greererpeton, have figure data that lack an otic notch, but photos that have one.
  2. Salamanders and frogs that greatly reduce posterior skull bones.
  3. All microsaurs more derived than Microbrachis

Let me know
if I overlooked or misrepresented any pertinent data. This weekend I should be able to look at and respond to the many dozen comments that have accumulated over the last few weeks.